Main Site         

Bible John – on the trail of a murderer

2000 October 17
by Paul Vallely

For more than three decades he has haunted the popular imagination. He has been a bogy man for generations of schoolchildren: “You’d better watch out – or Bible John will get you!” He has been a yardstick for the nation’s crime reporters: “Not since Bible John stalked the streets of Glasgow…” He has been a vehicle for the plain man’s acquaintance with notoriety: “For years we’ve been suspicious about that wee man across the road.” Above all, he has been a mechanism for the ordinary woman’s flirtation with danger: it seemed that just about everyone’s sister’s pal had been out with him – and most had only narrowly escaped the fate which befell the three young women he picked up under the glitterball in Glasgow’s seedy Barrowland Ballroom and who were each found dead the next day.

More than 30 years on, could it really be that modern forensic psychology is about to unmask the man responsible for all this?

He had been smarter than the types who usually frequented the ballrooms, the stories went. Tall and handsome, with attractive eyes, well-dressed and well-spoken, he seemed a cut above the young labourers in their cheap, Italian-style suits who typified the clientele at the Barrowland and the Majestic.

But it was a story of the times. In far-off places like London and San Francisco, the Sixties was reputed to be a decade of free love and flower- power. In Glasgow, Scots singing-sensation Lulu in a white crepe dress and a sleeveless navy maxi-coat was as exotic as it got. In the background were the smog-ridden tenements and steamies of old, peopled by a Hogarthian mix of razor gangs, con merchants, wide boys and loose women.

Thursday nights at the Barrowland was traditionally the time when married folk would head to the hall for an extra-marital pick-up. In those days the women took off their wedding rings before they left home. One such was Helen Puttock, a 29-year-old mother-of-two from Scotstoun on the city’s west side. Her husband was in the army in West Germany. The marriage, the neighbours said, had “gone cold”.

She had gone to the ballroom with her sister, Jeannie Williams. At the end of the evening, the pair left the Barrowland with a man who called himself John. They shared a taxi, which dropped Jeannie off first, leaving her sister in the cab alone with the man. Helen’s partly clothed body was found the following morning, Friday 1 November 1969. It was the third Barrowland killing.

Ten months earlier, a 25-year-old auxiliary nurse called Patricia Docker, the victim of a broken marriage, who lived with her parents and her young son in Glasgow’s South Side, had been found naked in a lane a short distance from her home. And six months later, the body of Jemima McDonald, a 32- year-old mother of three toddlers, who lived not far from the ballroom, was found partly clothed one morning in a tenement close to her home.

There were several common factors. All had been raped. All were naked or semi-naked. All had been strangled with their own clothing. All had been menstruating. But it was not this that the press seized upon. The killer, it was reported, quoted passages from the Bible as he strangled his victims. Passages which appeared to show a dislike for adulterous women. It was a haunting image. The killer was quickly dubbed “Bible John” and forthwith he entered Scottish criminal mythology. Soon everyone had a tale to tell about Bible John.

He was never caught – and it seems likely that he never killed again. Until now, most people assumed he was dead, but even so his ghost lingered. Bible John was the precedent by which all other crimes were judged. Those involved in the case, from pathologists to policemen, were henceforth always referred to as the Bible John Doc or the Bible John Cop. When Joe Beattie, the detective who led the original murder inquiry, died this year at the age of 82, Bible John was the raison d’etre of his obituary.

The image of a dapper, religiously deranged killer moving undetected around a city covered by eerie smog earned a special place in a Glasgow psyche morbidly fascinated with horrific crimes. A constant stream of lurid books, larded with a peculiar fantastical fiction which verged on the pornographic, has been published over the years. Three years ago, the respected Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin produced a novel in which the tale of a modern serial killer was told by Bible John from his retirement. There was even a comic book – The Tale of Bible John: He Killed for Jesus – from Killer Komix, which predictably outraged relatives of the murdered women.

It was the quotations from the Bible – and the juxtaposition of sacred words with sacrilegious acts – which gave the legend its particular resonance. But few thought to ask how anyone could have known that the killer quoted scripture as he strangled his victims. In reality, the myth grew from a solitary fact: that Jeannie Williams, the sister of Helen Puttock, had told police the man they picked up that fatal night used a single biblical quotation in a conversation earlier in the evening. No one bothered to notice at the time that there was no real biblical link to the other killings. Myths tap into something that is far more profound than empirical facts or reasoning.

Then, in 1996, it seemed finally that scientific rationalism would lay the ghost of Bible John to rest. Using newly acquired DNA- testing methods, Strathclyde police took a genetic fingerprint from a semen stain found on Helen Puttock’s tights. They decided it was close to that of John McInnes, the cousin of one of the original suspects, who had committed suicide in 1981.

Jeannie Williams – who had spent more than two hours in the company of the man who almost certainly killed her sister, and had failed to identify McInnes in an identity parade 72 hours later, maintained that he was not the killer. But the police insisted on exhuming McInnes’ body from a Lanarkshire graveyard, saying they were “98 per cent sure” he was Bible John. After an embarrassing five- month inquiry, they were forced to admit to outraged relatives and irritated local MPs that the sample did not match. Worse than that, bite marks on Helen’s body showed that her killer had a prominent, deformed front tooth – and McInnes, they discovered from his grave, had worn dentures.

More embarrassing still, Joe Beattie, the detective who led the original murder hunt, said before his death: “No one ever really thought there was one man who killed three times. The cases were never really linked.”

But it takes more than facts to kill a legend. As the detective writer Ian Rankin puts it: “I felt a measure of relief when the DNA analysis turned out proving that the suspect could not have been Bible John. It wasn’t just that I wouldn’t have to change my novel: it was the deeper satisfaction that the myth continued to live. Bible John is almost beyond flesh and blood now. He’s an archetype. He belongs to everybody who’s ever been afraid in the dark.”

So what of this week’s development? A man from the United States has contacted Professor Ian Stephen, the forensic psychologist who is the real-life model for the gritty, award-winning TV series Cracker. The man, who had read about Stephen’s work on the internet, reckons that his cousin, who is still alive and believed to be living in the south of England, is the real Bible John. He says his family has been haunted since the Sixties by fears that they could hold the key to the three murders. The suspect, believed to be the son of a police officer, was brought up by an aunt, a regular church-goer, and spent his childhood days in the Boys’ Brigade. Relatives spoke at the time of the man’s incredible likeness to the Bible John photo-fit image. The man then gave details of the suspect’s erratic behaviour at the time of the killings to Professor Stephen, who was so concerned that he passed them on to the police within an hour of obtaining them.

So perhaps – at last – the police are really about to close in on the man whom Scotland has known for 31 years as Bible John. Whether they will ever nail the myth is another matter.


Comments are closed.